GRAFTON—The Grafton community is known for their devotion to honoring the American heroes that have braved distant lands to help protect the freedoms that are enjoyed by citizens today. Recently, students from Grafton High School (GHS) completed a project that highlighted an assortment of soldiers interred in the West Virginia National Cemetery.
Earlier in the school year, GHS teachers Rebecca Bartlett and Richard Zukowski joined with the West Virginia Humanities Council on a special project that would have nearly 40 students recounting the lives of 19 veterans buried in the National Cemetery in Pruntytown.
“The two National Cemetery, in and outside of Grafton, are the only ones West Virginia possesses. As this project continues, we plan to tackle both of them, but in this first year, we focused entirely on the Pruntytown cemetery, at our teachers’ requests,” explained Council Program Officer Kyle Warmack, who oversees the program. “In addition, that cemetery was the final resting place from World War II and on. However, future biographies will extend back to the Civil War.”
Since November, the students have combed through records, tracked down leads and researched the nearly 20 brave men of the project. Now that their work has been completed, it is on display at the Taylor County Historical and Genealogical Society.
These GHS students are pioneering the first year of the West Virginia National Cemeteries Project, a new program from the West Virginia Humanities Council that seeks to create a growing database of biographies for the veterans buried in Taylor County’s National Cemeteries through student research and writing.
As part of the West Virginia National Cemeteries Project, the students worked in groups of two or three to learn as much information about their veterans as they could.
“Along the way, they utilized research techniques and sources that they were encountering for the first time. Some of which they would not have had to use until college,” explained Warmack. “Incorporating archival research and primary sources, such as a veteran’s letters, really isn’t a skill students are encouraged to develop until college. It’s an essential part of information literacy, examining these pieces and learning to fit them into the larger picture of history. And it’s not easy—determining these relationships isn’t necessarily simple even for professional historians—and the students have been very tenacious.”
They made their way to Charleston to visit the State Archives, the read books and used online research tools such as Ancestry.com. In the event of a dead end, the students and teachers could call upon Humanities Council staff and four graduate students from the West Virginia University public history program to assist them.
The students were then tasked with compiling a short biography about their designated solider.
“The students’ research and writing has been incredible in so many ways,” Warmack voiced. “First, the amazing stories they discover. Whether a veteran served for two decades and fought in several wars, or if they served five years as an aircraft mechanic after high school, these are poignant, relatable lives, and it’s wonderful to watch the students learn how to tell their stories.”
And while the biographies will be uploaded to the Humanities Council website, residents are encouraged to stop by the Historical Society to take in their display of the students’ work.
The students’ work will also be available through the Veterans Legacy Program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which funded the project.
Warmack disclosed that printed copies will be donated to the Taylor County Historical Society, and biographies for veterans who were killed in action will also be listed on a database maintained by the State Archives.
School librarian Bartlett voiced that the project impacted her as soon as he heard about it and she was excited for her students to take part in it.
“Not only was it a great tool for our students to learn different research techniques, but it is so important to share the stories of these brave men, so that their memories will continue to remain,” she said. “We have all learned so much. These stories are so heroic, compelling and admirable.”
Bartlett said that even though the students encountered issues with weather and research blockers, they worked hard to obtain information about their soldiers.
“I just want to thank this group for sticking it out with us and making this project so worthwhile,” she expressed.
Zukowski, who serves as the school’s Social Studies Chair, voiced that he was happy to get his AP Government students involved in the research project.
“This has been a trial year, and we are looking forward to continuing the project in the future,” he said.
All involved have shown interest in pursuing the continuation of the project at Grafton High School next school year and beyond.
“It’s important to share the lives and service of these veterans in as many places as we can,” Warmack says. “This is just the first year, and there’s no question that we’ll be applying for funding to continue the project. We’re already working on ways to make it better for Grafton students in years to come.”